Peter Sellars has an unusual new creation: turning the world’s first atomic bomb project into music.
The director is collaborating with Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Adams on a new stage work called “Doctor Atomic.” It’s the story of how physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team, racing against Hitler, created the world’s first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert.
“This is an awesome subject that can’t be dealt with in a rational way,” said Adams, who joined Sellars at Lincoln Center on Thursday to introduce the new opera to the media. “It’s about flesh-and-blood people screaming at each other, and loving one another.”
With a bare-bones set whose modernism reflects the ground zero of that era, “Doctor Atomic” is now in rehearsal for an Oct. 1 premiere at the San Francisco Opera, which commissioned the work and will present it at the War Memorial Opera House. “Doctor Atomic” is also to be staged in 2007 by Chicago’s Lyric Opera Chicago and the Netherlands Opera, which both co-produced the work.
For the text, Sellars used once top-secret government and military documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as personal letters from scientists to President Truman urging him not to use the atomic weapon.
Noted Sellars: “Documents that were top secret and never meant to be seen are now set to music.”
The story focuses on a night in July 1945, during a rainstorm, when the brilliantly charming Oppenheimer and his youthful team prepared to test detonate the first atomic bomb at their secret location near Los Alamos. Huge moral issues loomed over this so-called “Manhattan Project,” which included the plan to unleash the furious force that in August 1945 would kill more than 120,000 Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“These are not just made-up stories. These were real human beings with real choices — and some folly,” said Sellars. “And this was the single biggest weapons project in the history of humanity.”